A church's transition from one pastor to the next, otherwise known as pastoral succession, was the focus of a recent Christian leadership webcast in which prominent church leaders spoke about their experiences with the process.
Jonathan Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., succeeded his late father Jerry Falwell, after he suddenly passed in 2007. At the time, there was no plan of action in place and with over 20,000 members to lead, Falwell found himself immediately stepping up as his replacement.
"I had to build relationships because my dad had been the shepherd for over 50 years and now there were people that I had to minister to and make a difference in their lives," said Falwell during the Leadership Network's Succession webcast on Tuesday. "I made the commitment early on that I wanted to keep open lines of communication within the church…I wanted to let them know that I was accessible."
While each church's circumstance is different, speakers agreed that succession will occur at some point during a pastor's ministry. His or her departure can evoke a range of emotions and issues within the congregation but they noted that the process can be seamless with the help of long-term planning and the involvement of the entire church.
Although most pastors begin the transition process two to four years before they step down due to retirement, illness or other ministerial opportunities, Falwell had to learn to immediately take charge of the church while still grieving his father. He says that despite the common practice of advance succession planning, being unprepared allowed him to seek God's will.
"The Sunday after my father passed, we gathered at the altar and cried out to God asking Him where we should go and thankfully, we continue to do that now, six years later," said Falwell.
Popular author and former pastor of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, Max Lucado shared the same sentiment about seeking God's guidance. He explained the importance of ensuring that the replacing leader is someone who the leaving pastor and the church have no doubt about.
"We went on a hunt and found Randy Frazee and he's been here for over four years," said Lucado. "Our attendance has increased, our giving has gone up and we've been able to add campuses to our multisite ministry. I believe that our staff is better led now than ever, I also believe his strengths offset my weaknesses and maybe vice versa."
Frazee replaced Lucado after he became busy as an author and could not fulfill his pastoral duties on a full time basis. Lucado was also undergoing health issues that triggered him to finally step down.
He also advised that pastors should "embrace the new guy" and let go of complete control after they get replaced. Furthermore, he suggested that once they have stepped down, they should pursue another ministry outlet.
"Don't underestimate what's going to happen as soon as you catch your breath and leave because when you do, you're going to want to preach and minister to someone. Be sure that this is something God is leading you to do. Maybe you don't need to move on, maybe you just need a good vacation, so be careful," said Lucado.
Francis Chan, who relocated to San Francisco in 2010 after leading Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, Calif. for over 16 years, weighed in on surrendering all control as preceding pastors.
"You have to go to the Lord and say, 'I will stay here as long as You want me to stay' or 'God, I will literally go anywhere on this earth,'" said Chan. "You also have to be honest with your fears. This is no different from what the disciples went through when Jesus said just 'follow me.'"
He added, "Once you've taken that step, it's time to pray for wisdom. I don't believe it's something where we just come before God and say, 'God, take away all the options and make it obvious where I ought to go,' but God, in His brilliance, created us in such a way that we can use this wisdom that He gives us, in addition to the leading of His Spirit."
During succession, pastors along with the congregation should also recognize that transitions are meant to keep their eyes focused on His wisdom for the church's next step, said influential preacher John Piper's succeeding pastor, John Meyer.
In 2012, Meyer took on the role of senior pastor at Vision of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis after Piper had led the congregation for 32 years. Upon being elected, he implemented a series of principles that allowed the entire church to discern God's will for the new direction they were heading in.
"We tried to make this transition not about finding a man but about fulfilling a mission," said Meyer. "We also made Him supreme [during succession process] by not making this about human personality but about His presence. Ultimately, that's what people want. It's not going to be about a continuity of personalities and gifting's, we genuinely want a continuity of God's presence."
In addition to these speakers, the half day web conference also featured leaders who said they are all "interim pastors," regardless of their progress as transitioning successors.